Now that Sandy has receded and the election is over, it’s time to turn our attention to another disaster: The incredible shrinking circulation of Philadelphia’s two major daily newspapers. The news is bad, and it’s kind of stale at this point—the latest circulation numbers were announced Oct. 30, around the time everybody was staring at pictures of a devastated Jersey Shore—but it’s worth revisiting now, because (again) it’s so very, very bad.
Bottom line: The combined daily circulation of the Inquirer, the Daily News, SportsWeek, and every other product that counts in the final number is down by 10.5 percent—from 331,132 to 296,427—in just one year. Again: That’s more than 30,000 households that just decided to stop reading the newspaper.
Even in an industry that’s been notable in recent years for its utter stagnation, those numbers are uniquely putrid: Poynter noted that among the top 25 papers in the nation, Philadelphia had endured the third-biggest decline. How bad was it? In the industry as a whole, daily circulation was down just 0.2 percent for the same period.
That’s terrifying, because the Inquirer and Daily News remain the most important sources of news in the city. Remove them from the ecosystem, and everything comes crashing down. The decline is unsustainable.
What to do? I don’t know. But there are papers across the United States that are making gains in circulation—big ones. What are they doing?
• They’re making digital pay. Admittedly, this is still an imperfect process. But the New York Times grew its circulation 40.3 percent over the last year, thanks in part to the “paywall” that requires regular online readers to subscribe. Either you pay or you don’t read. The result? The paper has nearly 600,000 paying subscribers online.
I pay $15 a month for access to the Times website and full use of the paper’s iPhone app. In Philadelphia, I paid a buck a couple of years ago for the Philly.com iPhone app—it was a way better way to read the papers digitally than the website—but these days the app is free.
In fact, one source of the Philadelphia newspapers’ circulation decline is in the digital arena: Subscribers to the “digital replicas”—gussied up PDFs of the print editions—declined from 40,845 in March to 25,572. Over the last couple of years, a big part of the papers’ digital strategy was to push subscriptions to those replicas. The strategy has clearly failed.
• They’ve gotten rid of the competition. This one is tougher to achieve locally. But the Newark Star-Ledger—whose circulation grew an astounding 48 percent in the last year—is aided immeasurably by the fact that it serves a relative media dead zone between Philadelphia and New York. Its audience isn’t flooded with local radio and TV news the way folks are here, so they’re hungrier for the Star-Ledger’s product.
That scenario won’t play out in Philadelphia. But it’s worth noting that the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, another big circulation gainer, used to be two newspapers: The broadsheet Advertiser and tabloid Star-Bulletin. Sound familiar? Yeah, I don’t like the implications either—both our local papers are doing important, important work—but honesty compels me to take note.
• They have consistent ownership. Well, duh. Here’s Poynter, noting the obvious: “Interestingly, three of the five biggest Sunday circulation losers — the (San Diego) U-T,Inquirer and (Orange County) Register — were sold in the last year.”
Well, of course. In the last four years, the owners of the Inquirer and Daily News have had three different ownership groups: Brian Tierney’s group, the hedge fund that pulled the the papers out of bankruptcy, and now the group of civic-minded local businessmen who bought them earlier this year. Bill Marimow has been the top guy at the Inky, demoted, moved to Arizona, and then returned as top guy again.
It’s impossible to develop a consistent strategy or a long-term plan of attack in such circumstances. Having consistent ownership is no guarantee of long-term success, but it seems that turmoil definitely takes a toll. The best thing the current ownership group can do, then, is just not give up for awhile.
Despite the numbers, there are signs of life at the newspapers. Philly.com has received a long-overdue makeover that that lets users actually find news—even though the site seems to want to keep the opinion pages in hiding. The Daily News has hired Helen Ubiñas to be its new columnist, and that seems to mean the editors expect the paper to survive for a little while yet—as does a redesign the paper is expected to unveil next week. (The Inky announced its own changes this morning.) And there are growing rumblings about new websites for both papers in the near future. Does all of this portend an actual plan?
Let’s hope so. Because the papers can’t survive if circulation keeps dropping by 10 percent a year. If there’s a success story in the offing, it has to begin now.